Juggling time for work life balanceWhen I first started coaching the subject of Work-Life-Balance was a hot topic. We talked a lot about boundaries, keeping work at work and leaving it all behind a locked office door when you came home in the evening. Work life balance was something tricky to achieve and maybe trickier to maintain.

How different things feel now!

The advent of smartphones, an always-on internet, wifi, 3G, 4G and an ultra-responsive business culture has meant that for many people, the idea of leaving work behind a locked door seems impossible and maybe not even desirable.

Many a conversation has revealed that most of my colleagues would rather answer emails on a daily basis even while on holiday or vacation rather than face a bulging inbox on the first morning back at work.

The thing about Work-Life-Balance is that it’s not about a magical number of hours in or out of work. The research has consistently shown that what’s more important is whether we are happy about the amount of time we spend working. We have a powerful sense of fairness. If we feel our workload and the distribution of our time is fair, the chances are we will be content.

And there’s also that sense of control… are we the ones who have any say in how much work is done when? Long term studies have shown that greater satisfaction, better physical and mental health outcomes are associated with a greater sense of control in our working lives.

In my experience, more control and flexibility has come with greater age, experience and seniority. In terms of “time in the office” I’ve certainly seen my patterns change over time. In the earlier stages of my career as a Researcher I found that long hours in the lab were certainly required. There was a culture of long-hours-working and practically, an experiment takes as long as it takes but by far the greater pressure was a self-imposed drive to get those experimental results ready for publication – journal papers were the life-blood and driving force required for a successful career.

From one point of view, I was definitely choosing to do the work as it benefited my career, from another, I felt like an overworked cog in a highly pressured system. Maybe most people in their twenties and even early thirties will work longer and harder as this is often the key time when career platforms are built… but remember, it’s also the most likely time that you will find a life partner so do make sure it’s not all work and no play!

As my role became more managerial in nature I did less “at-the-bench experimentation” and my days became more flexible. I still worked just as long but with more time spent reading, writing and analysing I did have the option to work from home. In my experience, the Academic who never shows up at the office is a myth. My experience of “work at home” flexibility meant that after working from 8.00am to 5.30pm I could take my papers home with me and continue to work through evenings and weekends.

Now although I felt more in control, without boundaries, this is a great way to wreck relationships and ruin your weekends!

So what boundaries work to balance your work time dilemmas?

For some people it can be more helpful to stay at work for an extra hour or two… get the work done, miss the rush hour traffic and leave it all in the office so you can relax when you do get home.

But this might not work for you. If you’ve reached the point of mental exhaustion, sitting at your desk for another two hours will not produce quality work. It’s much better to go home, take a break, to recharge your batteries. You deserve your home time!

How and when this might work depends on you and your personal choices…

If there’s stuff that you really feel must be done today, maybe you prefer to get home and do a final hour’s work before dinner, or perhaps it suits you to have dinner with the kids, put them to bed and then have a final go at emptying your inbox for an hour before you go to bed.

Different people will find different solutions that work or are acceptable. You might want to have a think, grab a time management workshop or even work through your priorities with a Coach if you want to figure out how not to need to work while out of work!

For me personally, the most important thing is that I have times when I know I am not working.

These are times when food, company or relationships have guilt-free priority over my desire/need to do just a bit more work. I protect these times fiercely and value those I share them with.

Sometimes it’s an evening off, a weekend or even a week – well, maybe I can’t manage a whole week. In truth, if I’m going away or simply caring for my sister while she’s home, I usually agree a half hour to check emails before we go out for the day and maybe another 30 minutes at the end of the day – and then that’s it, guilt is gone and the rest of the time is ours to enjoy.

So right now, I might find I am working late in an evening or on a weekend, but it’s usually because at another time I’ve chosen to play during day, guilt-free.

For me work-life balance isn’t so much a set of rules about time-keeping or hours, it’s knowing I can play and live and love – then fill in the gaps with hard work!

What works to help you plan guilt free time off?